MADE WIJAYA is remarkable man. Flamboyant, erudite, complicated, articulate, outrageous and completely dedicated to Bali and Balinese culture. Did say flamboyant?
I had a wonderful enjoyable morning with him at his house and garden (which is also his office), at Villa Bebek in Sanur on the southern coast. He came as Michael White to Bali from Australia in 1973 as an intended short break in his architectural studies but never went back. Instead, he met Braggie, Who taught him about gardening. This, combined with his architectural background and his fascination for Balinese culture, inspired him to design gardens, to date over 600 in total in Singapore, India, Mexico, Hawaii and Morocco. He is a dominant figure who has taken the Balinese garden and made a modern Idiom from it – and a thriving business. He employ ninety people at his home at Villa Bebek where he strides round from group to group dressed in shirt, turban, dark glasses and long wrap-around, shouting, cajoling, flirting, roaring with laughter and working on twelve different project at once.
It is always much more interesting to visit a garden designer in their own garden rather than in one that they have made for c client. His is a series of interlocking areas with lily pond, swimming pool and seating areas all interspersed with shrines, statues, buildings and lush plants. The Balinese compound is there but exuberantly, dramatically planted.
Unlike Jim Thompson’s in Bangkok, where the intention was to mimic the jungle pressing in on the house, this does not ape any kind of natural planting. It is a performance and a very self-conscious, self-confident one where every detail works towards the desired effect. These details accumulate relentlessly and are invariably loaded with wit, charm and a sense of playfulness. It was the first garden that I had come across in this journey that made me smile. It was ornate, crowded, intense, loaded with textures, fragrance, shapes, colour – although inevitably green dominates - and objects and yet it felt of a piece with the lushness and intensity of light and heat, as if the underlying jungle was just waiting to return and engulf everything. Made Wijaya's brilliance is to understand that growth, to ally it to the culture and traditions of the Balinese temple and compound gardens and to create something modern and original from it.
I sat with him in the centre of his garden with the scores of people working in the various pavilions scarcely heard or seen, and asked him how his garden was conceived. ‘I was very influenced by the wild colours, the fecundity and the peopling of the gardens with these wild shrines and things. So I have tried to edit out the Dutch colonial influence of gentrification and use the natural garden style without making it too kitschy or Disneyfied. You have to retain that spiritual element. This is a testing ground for ideas. I wanted it to be a little mini-history of all Bali trends. So I have water features I had seen in palaces of east Bali. I have a sand garden, I have tried to collect ornamental courtyard trees and shrubs, so it is a sort of museum of Balinese garden traditions and compounds. There are twelve pavilions and forty-eight different courtyards.'
Forty-eight courtyards! The garden, as far as I could see was not particularly large but by any standards that is a lot of different garden areas. ‘A small garden just requires a big idea. It's no easier to do a small courtyard. If you have pavilions in the compound you end up with lots of different spaces. The big part of Balinese Traditional gardens are the gates and walls and shrines. But in the villages it’s just baked earth and couple of frangipani trees. But there will be water buffaloes grazing. The idea of plants as part of a decorative garden is fairly new to the Balinese.
‘Any garden is temporary because if the elder son is to be married everything gets pulled out. This garden we are sitting in was built for a book launch. Things come and go. That’s why things are often in pots because they have lots of ceremony and they have to more things round. Any good tropical architecture allows itself to be thrown over for a big garden party! Everything is temporary. It grows and comes up quickly but disappears quickly too. It is a lot of maintenance.’
How does this square with the long tradition of the temple? ‘The Balinese keep their finest work for the temples but they live in a temple environment in a way. Every house has its temple. In Palaces and houses it tends to blur. Flowers for the offerings are from the main courtyard. The priests who look after the temple are really priest-gardeners. They sweep them, gather and pick the flowers for the offerings.’
At Villa Bebek, I felt for the first time that I had found the truly exotic tropical garden that I had imagined would feature throughout my trip to South East Asia.
So do you take the temple garden and provide a version of it for new gardens? ‘You don’t gift a shrine to a garden that will not respect it. But you can use dancers or warrior figures. The man-made and the natural can combine. The artful garden. You can create a well-balanced garden that is still Balinese with its passageways for food to be carried across for life lived outside in a series of pavilions – like the Islamic and Persian gardens.’
I asked, given the huge increase in tourism and building, where the future of the Balinese garden lay. ‘'Bali survived colonization, survived islamisation, it has pretty much survived mass tourism – but will it survive the real estate boom? They don’t want to give room to the gardens. It is a dynamic culture but they are easily bored. They will resist the trend for minimal gardens because they are gardeners. Bali is more on the edge of the Chinese civilsation and is a sponge for all Asian trends from Buddhism and the Mughals from India to Hinduism and colonial influence. Thailand had no garden culture and would cut back the jungle. But they came to Bali and saw that they could make gardens.’
I asked Made what he thought of the exotic, ‘tropical’ garden that you can now find all around ihe world, not least in Britain. 'Tropical gardens are getting bad reputations. Sticking in croton and a few palms doesn’t make a tropical garden. You need to have cultural and geographical reference.’ I agree. Gardens must have meaning at every level be it the geographical, personal, practical or spiritual. Preferably all at once. I later visited a couple of smart holiday homes nearby with acclaimed gardens. Pleasant but I could have been anywhere where the sun shone and the sea was warm and blue. They were anonymous and meaningless and after the busy richness of Made's garden they fell static and dull.
So my journey came to an end on a high note. I had not found the perfect, natural tropical paradise but I had found a truly creative garden entrenched in a local idiom and making something new from it. I had seen fascinating things along the way. Bangkok is a crazy, busy and rather wonderful city with no real interest in gardening but the klongs hint at a culture that is practical, modest, busy and adores its food. I found Singapore's obsession with money and consumption vulgar and rather depressing. The tree lined roads were lovely but the idea of a City Garden is marketing claptrap . There was no poetry, no soul. Bali is shockingly crowded with people and new buildings. But it is exhilaratingly beautiful and every stick, stone and leaf sings. The temples are spiritual gardens of an order I had never experienced before.
I returned home on February 15th, my wife’s birthday and the day when we usually begin to sow the summer seed for our own northern, very untropical garden.